Having taught many courses on the subject of chronic depletion over the years at a variety of institutions (Esalen, Upledger, international venues, and self-organized courses), I will often find people asking me what I mean by chronic depletion. I almost always begin by saying we need to have a bodymind understanding of resilience first before we can start talking about depletion or chronic depletion.
I’ll probably talk about depletion and chronic depletion in a future blog post, but lets play around with a bodymind understanding of resilience in this blog first.
First off, resilience is a very hot topic in contemporary psychotherapy. I think it is an attractive word and an easy quality for everyone to want. It’s also a really easy word to help make sense of trauma recovery and from life’s adversity.
In terms of psychological resiliency, it is the capacity of someone to cope well under adversity. In the counseling world, there’s no one definition, but one of my favorite ways of understanding resilience is as “the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to . . . . resources to sustain well-being” (i) . I think I have favored this view on resilience most because it avoids the tendency to think of resilience as something innate and places resilience instead on skills and behaviors we can enact right this moment. In other words, it makes psychological resilience an active process of being empowered in your own life, rather than as a passive recipient of something that is innately inside of you. Now, to be fair, something such as resilience probably has some genetic component to it in addition to the skills we have acquired in life, of course, but for the sake of working with people who are struggling, we want to put more emphasis on the things we can do right now in order to be more resilient.
When someone is trying to be more psychologically resilient, there are many qualities that build resilience, and it’s easy to clump all the various factors of psychological resilience into three main categories:
Under the lifestyle categories would be all the things people know they should do such as good diet, good sleep habits, healthy work/life balance, exercise, etc. Under the outlook categories would be the way we choose to look at things. If we have a problem and view it as impossible, that will be much harder on us than if we look at it as a challenge to overcome. Under the community/connections category would be all the social behaviors a person has. Does a person have close supportive friendships, loved ones, people who care and support? At our core, all of us are social beings and thrive on human connection.
A concept closely related to resilience is the concept of agency. “Agency”, at its most simple is a person’s capacity to act in the world. It is possible to have conscious agency and unconscious agency. For therapeutic and resilience purposes, we are mainly interested in conscious agency, i.e- a person’s ability to make choices and change in his or her world. On a bodymind level then, a “sense of agency” is then the deeply ingrained body sense of being able to act in the world on your behalf. A wonderful quality to feel and one for which many, many people are searching. Quite simply, it is not possible to have psychological resilience without a sense of agency. And many of the processes of trying to help a person build resilience are also working to help a person build a sense of agency.
So, how does the above translate to the tissues for body workers?
The analogy above actually translates quite well for touch-based practitioners and manual therapists who are also working to help a body have as much resilience as possible. Physical resilience is the body’s ability to compensate for trauma, injury, and adverse events. As a short hand for this idea, I’ll often refer to the body’s “capacity for compensation”.
A resilient body will still get injured from trauma, but the impacts from the trauma will be lessened compared to a non-resilient body. It’s common for people to get sick when they are highly stressed, for example, because their immune system gets compromised. Stress also tends to impact our mental and attentional function as well, making it more likely that we’ll get injured.(ii) We all know from experience that we forget things and lose things when we are stressed way more than when we are relaxed and happy. The same dynamic makes injury more likely too. When someone is only partially paying attention to their environment, then he or she is more likely to get injured.
Additionally, people with tight muscles and tissues sustain much worse damage from an injury than people who are flexible and resilient. For manual therapists, they way we tend to understand this last point is on a gross level of muscle softness and flexibility, but we also tend to understand this on a subtler connective tissue level. If injured and restricted fascia is constricting a nerve or blood vessel, then the body either loses its ability to function normally in that area or has to work much harder to maintain normal function. In an ideal situation, a person’s body tissues have a high capacity for compensation, meaning that the body can compensate for new challenges without losing its ability to function well.
The concept of “capacity for compensation” is really the same concept of agency, but on a biological level. It is the capacity of the body to regulate itself, heal itself, and act on its behalf for life and longevity. If a restriction happens to be around a sensitive structure such a nerve or blood vessel and movement would mean potentially serious further damage, the body will significantly alter its movement patterns. In advanced manual therapy circles, it becomes a truism to say that the body “hugs the lesion”. In other words, the body compensates around the restriction because to not do so would cause further injury. A soft tissue restriction, no matter how small, is basically an impediment to the body towards its ability to freely engage the world around it.
To remove a restriction is essentially helping a body have greater agency in its ability to act on its behalf of healing and self-regulation.
Ok. This might all sound fairly common sense, to manual therapists at least. But how can we understand resilience better as an integration of body and mind? Rather, how can we paint a better and more integrated picture of bodymind resilience?
The relationship between the body and the mind is one of mutual influence. Our mental states influence our physical structure and our physical structure influences our mental states. There might be some circumstances where the mind has more influence upon the body, as in stress states. There are also circumstances where the body has more influence upon the mind, as in hormonal changes or organic pathologies such as schizophrenia. But on the balance, I find myself believing that the relationship between the two is one of mutual influence rather than to say that one comes primary and the other secondary.
So, with a goal of greater bodymind integration and resilience: as we work on one we also work on the other. A tissue restriction causing pain and dysfunction has a corresponding mental cost of reducing mobility and changing self-perception. If a person’s back hurts, he will move less and eventually start thinking of himself as having back pain and eventually stop doing things which he thinks might cause pain. Likewise, negative mental states manifest in the body. A person who is depressed can feel physical pain connected with the depression. A person who feels sadness or anxiety also starts feeling pain and physical discomfort. A person who feels helpless will have less energy and connected body states.
As we help a body recover its physical capacity for compensation, it also has corresponding shifts in mental well-being. And likewise, as a person mentally begins identifying as healthy, the body will follow suit. A truly integrated understanding of resilience incorporates body & mind and also attends to both therapeutically at the same time. It’s not difficult to do, it just requires a manual therapist to attend to both during a session and also when crafting therapeutic goals.
This brings up back to a point made at the beginning of the blog. A “sense of agency” is a felt sense. It is embodied. A true sense of agency is bigger than just someone choosing to think of herself as having agency. It also involves feeling it, and feeling it is an emergent quality of all the countless sensations and movements within the body.
As a bodymind integrated practitioner attends to both simultaneously, it is possible for a person to both begin cultivating the mental states of having agency, but also having the physical sensations that correspond with it and reinforce it.
So, here’s an invitation for bodyworkers reading this blog: next time you are holding a restriction and waiting for it to release, also consider that its release also contributes to an feeling of freedom and empowerment internally.
And here’s an invitation for counselors reading this blog, consider how sensitive manual therapy might also contribute to your patient developing the feelings of freedom needed for long lasting change.
Please post your comments and responses below . . .
(i) What is Resilience? (n.d.). Retrieved October 08, 2016, from http://resilienceresearch.org/about-the-rrc/resilience/14-what-is-resilience
(ii) How much do psychological factors such as stress and personality contribute to the risk sports injuries? (n.d.). Retrieved October 08, 2016, from http://www.sportsinjurybulletin.com/archive/stress-sports-injuries.html#